Illegal signs along Bibb County roadsides land woman in controversy

mstucka@macon.comApril 29, 2012 

Cherry Horton is bugged by litter.

Last year, she decided to do something about it. And last month, she got arrested for it.

Horton figures she has collected about 1,950 roadside signs just since June. On the day of her arrest March 9, she was fingerprinted and placed in a holding cell.

“I had researched the codes and regulations very carefully. I wanted to make sure I was OK. I wanted to do the right thing,” said Horton, a 64-year-old retired accounts payable clerk. “I call it community service work.”

Horton said the signs -- advertising gyms, consignment sales, roof repairs, pressure washing and more -- are ugly clutter that can distract drivers or even block their view. She worries about safety first but said it doesn’t send a good message if visitors see illegal roadside advertisements about burial insurance.

“Do you think a handgun safety sign is a real good indication of our community?” she asked.

Signs within rights of way, County Attorney Virgil Adams has told county commissioners, are illegal. Commissioners talk about the illegal signs every few months but haven’t added resources to deal with them. Horton said she sees no evidence the county is addressing the sign problem.

“If I see a sign, it’ll stay there until it gets picked up by me,” said Horton, who often picks up the signs along Bass, Zebulon, Forsyth and Hartley Bridge roads. “I don’t think they have any intention of picking them up.”

One incident involving Horton calls into question whether two signs she admits taking from outside a Hartley Bridge Road bank were illegal, or if she may have broken the law by taking them.

Horton said when she saw the signs in front of the bank, she previously had only removed signs from the right of way. But this time, however, she aimed to find out whether the two signs were illegally placed or if the bank had given permission for them.

Bank employees told her they weren’t authorized, she recalled, so she loaded them into her silver Honda one day last December.

The owner of the signs, Eddie Parker, told deputies that his sister-in-law was the branch manager and authorized the signs on bank property. Parker declined to discuss the situation with The Telegraph.

But it was a different sign that led to Horton’s arrest. Parker reported that a $60 A-frame sign advertising gold purchases was swiped from a spot a deputy described in a report as “the entrance to Food Lion” off Houston Road.

Mike Sorkey, an assistant solicitor-general, said the charges were finally dropped partially because he didn’t know how to reach the Food Lion since the store had gone out of business. But he said he interprets the report to say the sign was in the entranceway, which is in the right of way.

“I don’t think that the taking of a sign from a public area constituted a theft by taking,” Sorkey said.

Widespread signs

It’s easy enough to find roadside signs that are clearly in the right of way. Take a trip by the Bibb County schools’ new Welcome Center to see signs for a house, a gym and satellite radio. They’re made of durable corrugated plastic, with a cheap metal stand that’s pushed into the ground.

Those kinds of signs, whether legally or illegally placed, all cost money. In December, Michael Deems told a sheriff’s deputy he had 28 signs that advertised the Middle Georgia Shooting Academy and rental properties taken. They were valued at $560. A separate statement said he placed eight signs with permission at a bank, two at a time, all of which were stolen. Deems declined to comment to The Telegraph, including whether all the signs were on private property with permission.

In the same December police report, Parker told deputies at least 20 of his real estate signs had been taken. Parker filled out a statement that the signs were “All put on Private Property or w/ permission.”

Bibb County Commissioner Joe Allen has worked with Macon City Councilman Ed DeFore to pick up signs, most often around the Eisenhower Parkway shopping areas. Allen said Horton was arrested for taking an illegal sign, so the commissioner himself should be arrested as well.

“If they charged her, they should have charged me. Everyone should be proactive in picking up litter. We need more of them,” he said, referring to Horton. “This lady is a hero to me, picking up all this trash at her age, had to go hire a lawyer to make sure she didn’t have to go to jail, and I’m disappointed in that, because she basically did what I told her to do, and Ed DeFore told her to do, and we told other people to do.”

Nearly all of the nearly 2,000 signs that Horton picked up were taken in by Bibb County officials for disposal. That arrangement ended with the arrest. Adams, the county attorney, wrote Horton on behalf of county commissioners that the county wouldn’t accept her signs any longer for disposal.

“We believe the better practice going forward is to notify the Bibb County Engineering Department or Sheriff’s Department and the County will make every effort to have the signs removed,” Adams wrote.

Horton’s attorney, Lars Anderson, responded with a letter that said that’s a sure way to make sure nothing gets done.

“The innumerable signs presently in the right-of-ways of the streets and roads in Bibb County stand as clear evidence of the Board of Commissioners’ tolerance -- if not encouragement -- of this illegal advertising practice,” Anderson wrote.

Bibb County Chief Administrative Officer Steve Layson said the county should be called to take care of such illegal signs, but he also admitted the county doesn’t have the ability to do much. County road crews have grabbed as many as 300 signs on rainy days when they can’t do other work, but the county doesn’t have the staffing to do any more. Layson said the county probably is picking up several hundred signs each month, but he didn’t have exact figures. Those ballpark numbers suggest that Horton, a grandmother of three, may be picking up about as many signs as Bibb County, which has an $83.4 million annual general fund.

Bibb County’s single code inspector spends most of his time looking for scrap tires -- a requirement of the grant that funds the position -- and much of the rest of the time is working on bigger issues such as dilapidated houses.

“There’s just not a lot of time and a lot of money devoted to doing community enforcement-type issues like this,” Layson said, saying the county has to look at the importance of each problem.

Roadside ambiguities

Sheriff Jerry Modena said he doesn’t know of anyone besides Horton who has been arrested for taking a sign. He also can’t think of anyone who’d been arrested for placing a sign illegally.

Sometimes it’s difficult to decide where the right of way is and whether a sign is illegal or placed on private property with the owner’s permission, he said. One Sunday morning Modena had to look at an owner’s property plat to prove to officers that his own campaign sign was legally on private property.

Modena said Horton’s case involves more than a dispute more than $60, but rather a matter of rights.

“After awhile it was bound to happen,” he said. “One of them took out a warrant for her, and a court decided she had some rights in the matter.”

Horton said that just last year she found one of Modena’s signs in the right-of-way, covered up to illegally advertise something else entirely. Modena plans to retire this year and last ran for office in 2008.

She put it in her Honda and moved on to other signs.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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